Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Doomed to repeat history? I wish.

Elderly people in their 70s are my favourite interviewees in my masters' research so far. Born just after the Depression into frugal families, young and idealistic during the civil rights era, farming through decades of boom and bust, these men and women have a wide perspective of agriculture in Saskatchewan. I was mining my interviews today and ran across this quote from one of them:

What the hell's wrong with this whole set-up? You know, our fathers and grandfathers would have revolted against it. And now people just don't have a thought about, you know, there's something wrong with the system.

Last summer, I read a lot about early agrarian movements on the prairies.  My favourite read was Hopkins Moorhouse's Deep Furrows*, a creative nonfiction book from 1918 about the Grain Growers Grain Company's origins with lines like "industrious little mallets were knocking away on the Xylophone of Doubt" and an unabashed bias towards the farmer activists. I found his enthusiasm to be contagious.

Agriculture here has always been capitalist - we had no peasants - and geared towards export. So I don't know how deeply our grandfathers questioned capitalism (although the Communist Party had several thousands of members here in the 1920s).**  However, there's no arguing that they effected large-scale change of a more radical nature than many in the food movement contemplate today.

In the early 1900s, when the wheat boom began and Saskatchewan saw the beginning of an immigration rush, farmers faced daunting array of organizations eager to bleed them dry. There were only two major railways, and they serviced different parts of the province. Elevator companies often owned all the elevators on a line and sometimes colluded on prices. The Winnipeg Grain Exchange was dominated by Eastern dealers and millers that farmers perceived as milking them. Federal tariffs made their agricultural products cheap for Eastern consumers and the Eastern industrial goods expensive for the farmers.

So the farmers organized. They formed the Territorial Grain Growers Association in 1901 and took legal action against a Sintaluta station agent the next year (and won). They formed the Grain Growers Grain Company in 1906 and managed, despite opposition by all the other dealers, to get a seat on the Winnipeg Grain Exchange and sell grain on a commission basis, returning profits to its farmer-investors. They formed the Wheat Pools in the 1920s, farmer-owned cooperatives that at first traded and marketed grain but became cooperative elevator companies after the 20s. Local retail co-operatives joined together in 1928 to form Federated Co-operatives Limited, which still administers over 160 co-ops in Saskatchewan today. And when farmers' lobbying pressure on politicians didn't result in desired results, they formed their own political parties. They were the nucleus of the Progressive Party which formed in 1920 and got 65 seats in the 1921 election. The United Farmers of Canada were instrumental in the the formation of the CCF in Saskatchewan (now the NDP).

All of these were collective, community-minded solutions because, as another 70 year old told me, "just like the working man, a farmer needs an organization to speak for him. By yourself you're nobody." Hopkins Moorhouse tells us that the directors of the Saskatchewan Cooperative Elevator Company in the early 1900s warned farmers that if the goal was only to produce dividends, they would “reproduce in another form the evil it was intended to destroy” and that the idea of service must be foremost in mind: their goal was to organize, educate, agitate, and socially and economically uplift farming. Their alternative system did not have generation of profit as its highest goal, social considerations be damned.

The corporate dominance of the food system in Canada today is not much different from how it was then. What is our response? We compete with each other to increase production, which drives down prices. We blame the faults of the system on individual failings - for example, if speculation wreaks havoc on prices, we say the answer is that farmers must learn to hedge. We accept the status quo as natural, even common sense. We think that we are taking action by buying something - "voting with our dollar"- without recognizing how the limited choices have been set out for us. Only 61% of us vote and those who don't likely aren't engaging in action to either change or make obselete the political system that they deem irrelevant or unimportant. We are kept in constant fear of national and personal financial insecurity and told that circling the wagons, excluding others, and getting what we can for ourselves is the way to stave off doom.

Well, I've worked myself into a funk. I'll post something more positive in a few days, but for right now, does anyone have any examples of some positive movement?

* Subtitled: Which Tells of Pioneer Trails Along Which the Farmers of Western Canada Fought Their Way to Great Achievements in Co-Operation
** I am compelled to write this geeky footnote: They were likely more Narodist than Lenin would have liked (although he would have expected no different).

Friday, May 27, 2011

A picture is worth a thousand words: Technology Treadmill.

Photo taken at Chaplin, SK.

"Actually, you're going to need it, to pay off the debt incurred in buying this fine machinery. Good thing your neighbour has no kids taking over his land and is selling out - better get that land before a bunch of investment companies come into your area to buy land and inflate the prices. Or you could just rent it from them - what's one more payment? Then you'll be in a prime position for us to finance your next purchase - our LEXION Class 9 combine."

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Conservatives snub democracy, farmers with move to dismantle Wheat Board

I couldn't be silent on the issue of the Canadian Wheat Board. It's in my blood. This is an article I wrote that will be appearing in a provincial NDP newsletter in June (so bear in mind the audience, when reading). For another angle that brings in the labour movement, see Simon Enoch's article.

On May 17, Conservative Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz terminated a longstanding debate in Western Canada by announcing his government's intention to end the Canadian Wheat Board's monopoly on marketing wheat and barley.

On one level, the debate is economic – do farmers do better with a monopoly seller representing them in the global marketplace by pooling their grain and sharing the average proceeds? This question has been conclusively answered 'yes' by many academic studies and trade inquiries.

However, the real issue at stake is an ideological one. The anti-CWB side argues private entrepreneurs should have the economic right to market their own grain and barley and compete with each other for the best price. The pro-CWB side argues in favour of economic cooperation and food sovereignty - values that have historically typified the Canadian farm movement and were crucial in the CWB’s formation.

The Canadian Wheat Board evolved in response to western farmers' lack of market power in the early part of the twentieth century when federal government policy set up the West as cheap providers of raw materials for Eastern industry. These farmers felt powerless against duopolistic railways, elevator companies, and the Winnipeg Grain Exchange. In the face of this, farmers' natural inclination was to take matters into their own hands, acting collectively for the good of the farm community: the Grain Growers Grain Company, the Wheat Pools, and finally the Wheat Board – made mandatory in 1943 – resulted.

Through its three guiding principles - single desk selling, price pooling, and government guarantees - the Wheat Board provides stability and market power to farmers. Unlike a private grain company, whose shareholders demand ever-increasing profits, the Board returns more than 95 per cent of its sales proceeds to farmers.

Of course, this is only part of what the CWB does. The Wheat Board also uses its considerable influence to advocate for farmers with Canadian National and Canadian Pacific, taking these railways to court when they have provided substandard service to farmers. The CWB also invests heavily in wheat and barley research, funding 60 per cent of the Canadian International Grains Institute. The Wheat Board has spent decades building markets that promote the superior reputation of Canadian wheat. These are services that the private sector either will not currently perform or will only do for a profit.

The Wheat Board is one of the last major institutions created by our ancestors to support prairie farmers. Farmers have lost other farmer-controlled institutions such as the Pools and supportive government programs such as the Crow Rate. In a situation that hearkens back to the 1900s, western farmers today are at the whims of a duopolistic rail transport system and the four companies who control more than 80 per cent of the global grain trade. More than an economic loss, though, the destruction of the Wheat Board seems to indicate the destruction of the cooperative values of our Saskatchewan farming ancestors.

Perhaps the most relevant lesson from the Wheat Board's impending demise for both rural and urban folk involves the federal government's conception of democracy. CWB opponents claim the recent election of a federal Conservative majority government, regardless of the tiny percentage of those voters who are farmers, means that the government has a clear mandate to kill the CWB.

CWB supporters point out that there already is a democratic mechanism to change the Board’s mandate. Since 1998, farmers who sell wheat and barley have the democratic right to elect directors to the CWB to carry out their wishes. And, since these elections began, 70 per cent of farmers have consistently voted in pro-CWB directors.

It's hard not to see Ritz's termination of the Wheat Board debate as a continuation of Conservative attempts to erode democracy by bypassing democratic processes, ignoring stakeholder desires, and ruling autocratically. For our food system, it means that we have lost control of a major staple and a major counterforce to multinational agribusiness giants.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

May Long

It's traditional to plant your garden on the May long weekend in Saskatchewan. I broke with tradition this year, and most of my salad garden is planted already. Lots of beans, corn, and bedding plants yet to plant as soon as it dries up a little!

Aphids' spinach buffet surrounded by chives


Radishes. If only they were as tasty as they are quick-growing and prolific.

Dwarf Siberian hot pepper
Tomatoes, peppers, cucurbits, brassicas hardening off

Thursday, May 19, 2011


Yesterday, I made the mistake of using the term "small farmers" in a discussion.

Immediately, I was accused of longing for the days of Old MacDonald's little farm, with the unspoken implication that those hardscrabble, parochial, stultifying days were well left in the past (the appealing part of that life is just a fairy tale for children). Small farms are perceived as inefficient, unreasonably labour-intensive, technologically backwards, and soon swept away by progress.

Accusations of romanticism also dog those who are involved in peasant movements - or even use the term 'peasant' to refer to anyone living today - despite the fact that peasants often self-identify as such, with pride. The problem, however, is in the critics' view of the peasant or small farmer, as static, backwards, a relic of the past. I recently met two young members of a five-farmer cooperative that produces vegetables on five acres. They are educated and active. They choose the technology that best suits their practices and utilize leading-edge techniques for data collection and analysis of their production and markets. Each of the members makes a good living, both income-wise and in doing something they love. This is an anecdote, but it is by no means an isolated example. If small farmers were truly anachronistic, they would not still persist in the face of overwhelming odds.

My late father had a response to the accusation of romanticism.

I wouldn't worry about the romanticizing of small farms. If you want a romantic notion to banish, how about the romantic idea that companies can self-regulate. Or the notion that the unrestricted, unencumbered marketplace will bring prosperity to all. Or the idea that people who run big companies (into the ground) are such geniuses they deserve to become billionaires. What those romantic notions and the policies they drove brought us was Enron, WorldCom, AIG, the Ponzi schemes of Bernie Madoff and ultimately near economic collapse.

Worry too about the romantic notion that we will cure this recession with more of the same – the "hair of the dog that bit you" school of economic theory.

But leave the small farm alone.  Is it so bad to be romantic for a time when the country was full of people, when small towns were the cultural, social and business hubs of the prairies? Do we celebrate the fact that national and global economics has forced us to the point where we need to farm half the country to be viable? Or should we try instead to romanticize the notion of serfdom, since that is increasingly where agriculture is headed. If you doubt that, ask the contract growers of turkeys, chickens and hogs in the U.S. 

The present state of rural Canada is surely not one to celebrate unreservedly. At least not for this romantic…

My biggest problem with the accusation of romanticism is that the accuser gets to decide what is possible and what is rational. Why is the desire for social justice a romantic dream, while the desire for more money is not? Are moral values unrealistic?

Monday, May 16, 2011

You kids get off my lawn!

I ate some ice cream tonight and didn't really enjoy it. This isn't because my palate has matured. It's because they just don't make it like they used to.

Growing up, we ate what I later realized, dining at friends', were giant bowls of ice cream. We bought the gallon bucket of Lucerne vanilla and dressed it up with raspberries or granola or apple butter or chokecherry syrup. It was creamy, smooth, and rich.

The Lucerne ice cream I ate tonight was slightly grainy and full of air. Okay, it's a cheap brand. But it's not the cheapest. Should I have to pay $8 a pint to get decent ice cream?

In The End of Food, Paul Roberts describes a visit to Nestle's headquarters, where scientists were experimenting to create ice cream with the perfect "mouthfeel". You know the mouthfeel I mean. That mouthfeel I was missing when I ate ice cream tonight.

Are they keeping all the good ice cream for the Swiss? "Those North Americans and their plebeian tastes. Let them eat junk."

Friday, May 13, 2011

Dei ex machina and the social scientist

With all this talk about climate change, food insecurity, peak oil, and the growing dead zone in the gulf of Mexico caused by overuse of agrichemicals, it will cheer you to know that farming in Saskatchewan right now is sustainable. So I was told by the director of R&D from the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture. Extrapolating from the ministry's research focus, the director no doubt attributes this sustainability to the innovations of Science and Technology.

As a social scientist, I don't have the technical scientific background to understand how losing over 10% of our farmers per decade, and having only 10% of farmers under the age of 40 is sustaining farming, rural communities and economies. Likewise, I don't know how the suggestion of an MBA student at the last conference I attended, that we "find new sources of water", will work to ameliorate the problems with climate change effects on the South Saskatchewan River basin, but guess I'm meant to have confidence in anyone who can create a mean RSI graph.

 All snark aside, the problem is this:  These are all social problems that people are trying to solve using technology or theoretical economic models. Drought in Saskatchewan is not just a lack of moisture. It involves questions about values - green lawns? - about ecological appropriateness - thirsty monocultures? - about governance - will the market decide who gets water and who doesn't? - about imagination - what kind of future are we planning for and with how long of a view? 
But we have been conditioned to believe that technology can - or if it isn't now, will very soon - solve all of our problems, including the ones it has created. Heavens forfend that, for example, a social scientist working in the field, with real people and real data, should be asked what to do about potential long-term drought in Saskatchewan and come up with research that addresses vulnerabilities to climate change by looking at how an individual or community's adaptive capacity to drought is enhanced or constrained not only by their access to infrastructure, knowledge, resources and technology but by the institutional framework, their capacity to act as a collective, and their human capital.* In other words, why do some people and communities adapt, or not, and what gets in their way or helps them to do that? These are important questions that the theory of "rational economic actors" and industry, science, and technology do not address adequately.

*See, for example: Pittman, J., V. Wittrock, S. Kulshreshtha, and E. Wheaton. (2011). "Vulnerability to climate change in rural Saskatchewan: Case study of the Rural Municipality of Rudy No. 284." Journal of Rural Studies, 27(1), 83-94.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mother's Day

These pictures are from my parent's organic garden in 1977, in the back yard of their 400 square foot house. I found them while converting old Kodachrome slides to jpegs today to make a CD for my mother.

Half of the back yard. Note the neighbours' garden in the background.

Intercropping and marigolds as pest repellents.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Reframing the Debate

I've had more than a few experiences that show that it's pretty difficult to get people to 'think outside the box'. I used to enjoy trying when I taught high school, but it seems to me that the students were more receptive than many of the adults I run across.

In response to my post "Ugliness", a discussion on another forum resulted. It began with the question, "Does this person understand it costs money to produce food". My response: "Of course I know it takes money to produce food in high-input Saskatchewan agriculture; I come from a conventional farm background. But if you think about it, it doesn't take money to produce food. It takes land, seeds, and water. Under capitalism, you need money for these things, but in many other systems, you don't - water, for example, often falls from the sky, and seeds come from plants, not Monsanto. The idea of buying and selling land is also historically recent. Until someone takes them from you and charges you for them, you don't have to pay money for these things. In other words, there is room to question the system that usually goes unquestioned, and I think it is necessary that we do so."

Well, that sure didn't work. The followup question was, "Who pays for the land, equipment and labour required to produce food?"

If I wanted to accept the questioner's premise that we have to deal with the system we're in, I could respond that there are many options, such as communit-based financing, machinery coops, community land trusts, or government funding such as with the Land Bank. But I was trying to reframe the question.

I once gave a twenty-minute presentation based on the idea that land should be decommodified, just to have someone ask at the end why I thought farming should be different from any other business. I was so flabbergasted that I started my response with "You seem to have missed the entire point of my presentation." I try not to give into the temptation to be plainspoken, but occasionally succumb. However, I have nothing on Coline Serreau.

A Globe and Mail food reporter interviewed her on her film about food production, Local Solutions for a Global Myth. Some excerpts:

 The experts and activists you interview say the big problem with agriculture today is that it focuses on making profit, not food. Is there a way to make both?  

To make both? What do you mean? We have to get out of this system, and profit is not the aim. Ever. It should never be the aim. Period. Profit has nothing to do with happiness. So if food is linked to profit, food is going to be bad.  

Do you think farmers can be convinced to grow food without profit though? 

It’s not without profits. They will have to make an honest, good living. It’s the whole system that has to be changed. It’s not about the farmers. If you make organic food, you’re not allowed to use the seeds that are produced by the right people [i.e. seeds that are not officially registered]. The whole system, it’s messed up, you know? So the people, they cannot make profit and do good things at the same time. You have 15 per cent of the big farmers who make all the big profit, but the others are ruined. Have you heard of agricultures? Have you heard of agricultures that have been ruined? Do you know it’s, like, millions of people affected? Why do you ask me those questions? I think you are – are you not aware?  

I think it’s a legitimate question. Because how would you be able to …
I wouldn’t be able. It’s the system. If you stop giving money to the people who put crap in the food, they won’t be able to put crap any more. They put it in because they get money from it, because they want to give money to the multinationals who produce the crap. It’s very well explained in the movie.

I wish I were French.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


Post-election, I am trying to think happy thoughts. Comfort food falls in that category.

I grew up eating a fair amount of cabbage, although what all it was in I can't remember. I can remember eating homemade sauerkraut, and eating around the core of the cabbage after my mom sliced off the leaves. But I didn't use cabbage once I was on my own, because I didn't really know how.

I decided I should learn to cook with cabbage, so I've been using it in some soups. I also stumbled across this delicious recipe for braised cabbage from Orangette. Enjoy!